James Loughran, conductor who led the Hallé Orchestra and shook up the Last Night of the Proms – obituary

James Loughran, who has died aged 92, was principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra for twelve years, succeeding John Barbirolli; he was also a popular figure at the Proms, performing no fewer than 47 times, including five Last Nights, where he started the tradition of ending the season with the audience singing along to Auld Lang Syne.

Barbirolli, who had picked up the ailing Manchester orchestra in 1943 and made it his own for more than a quarter of a century, was a hard act to follow. But Jimmy Loughran was more than up to the challenge, even if his gentle deliberation was less dramatic than the fireworks of some conductors.

Under his auspices, the Hallé expanded its repertoire, increased the proportion of female players to the then unusually high level of 25 percent, and made its first tour of Australia in 1981.

The audience was foremost in Loughran’s mind. “We’re very aware that people have paid good money to come out on a cold night and listen to music, and so we want to play as convincingly as possible to them,” he once said. With his clear, easy beat and delight in spatial phrasing, that wasn’t difficult.

He also largely stuck to the traditional 19th-century European repertoire that appealed to audiences, with only occasional forays into something more avant-garde. “I’m disappointed in a lot of contemporary music,” he admitted in 1977. “So much of it seems to stagnate at the experimental stage.”

A fast, energetic man with a high forehead and a tangle of increasingly whitening hair, he nevertheless had a gentle Scottish rhythm and a refreshingly direct lack of pretension, speaking softly but firmly to the orchestra during rehearsals: ‘Cellos were a little heavy there. ; violins make it more delicate, filigree… coquettish…’

James Loughran was born in Glasgow on 30 June 1931, the son of James and Agnes Loughran, and educated at St Aloysius’ College. Both of his parents had been married before and he had three half-sisters.

From the age of 12 he had organized and conducted a school orchestra, but after serving in the RAF he went on to study law and economics at the Commercial College in Glasgow. But music remained his first love, and he told how he saw Barbirolli perform an annual week of concerts in Glasgow in the 1940s.

In 1958, at the suggestion of Karl Rankl, the Austrian-born conductor who worked with the Scottish National Orchestra, Loughran sought experience at regional opera houses in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. “I did everything in Bonn,” he recalled of his determination to succeed, “playing piano during rehearsals, coaching singers and assisting in the pit.”

One of Loughran's many recordings with the Hallé

One of Loughran’s many recordings with the Hallé

Yet opportunities in Britain were few and far between until he won the Philharmonia Orchestra’s conducting competition in 1961, with Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer and Adrian Boult among the jury members. He was able to turn down offers from Liverpool, Scotland and the Royal Ballet and accepted the position of assistant conductor at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra because of the opportunity to work with his fellow conductor Constantin Silvestri.

After just four years, Loughran was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in his home city, where his demanding remit of 80 programs a year included new works by British, and particularly Scottish, composers.

He recalled how working with a broadcast orchestra provided an opportunity for self-reflection. “I recorded a concert, waited for the broadcast and recorded it so I could see how I could improve my interpretation for the future,” he said.

Although Loughran spent relatively little time at the opera house, it did him good. In 1963 he conducted the premiere of Malcolm Williamson’s Our Man in Havana at Sadler’s Wells and went on to work at Covent Garden (Aida), for Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group and at Scottish Opera (La traviata). “I like to keep my hand in opera, otherwise, like driving a car, you start to forget all the complications,” he told Gramophone magazine.

He was chosen to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a recording for the European Broadcasting Union of all of Beethoven’s symphonies on the occasion of the composer’s bicentenary in 1970. “It was an opportunity for me to undermine my preconceptions about Beethoven and to look at his music in a more scientific way,” he explained about his preliminary research, which he conducted together with the composer Robert Simpson.

In 1977, Loughran became the first Scot to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, breaking convention by omitting a soloist for the second half, Rule Britannia, and allowing not just one but two encores of Land of Hope and Glory, and urged the crowd to join him in singing Auld Lang Syne at the end of his speech instead of immediately belting out the national anthem. Nowadays the Scottish lament is formally part of the programme.

At the Hallé, where he first conducted as a guest in 1964, Loughran defended the idea of ​​greater flexibility and informality, suggesting that a concert soloist could entertain early arrivals with a short pre-concert recital and that members of the audience should could leave for a concert. performance if their transport or babysitting obligations require it. “Concert planning itself should be more imaginative,” he declared, although his own choice of repertoire remained conservative in taste.

Loughran remained principal conductor of the Hallé until Stanislaw Skrowaczewski took over in 1984, after which he was appointed conductor laureate until 1991.

Loughran at Holyrood Palace in 2010 after his appointment as CBELoughran at Holyrood Palace in 2010 after his appointment as CBE

Loughran at Holyrood Palace in 2010 after his appointment as CBE – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Meanwhile, he made his American debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1972, conducted the opening concert of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in January 1974, was the first Briton to conduct a major German orchestra when he took over the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in 1979, and served as permanent guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra from 1980, and held the same position with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (1987-90). In 1996 he was appointed chief conductor of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in Denmark.

In the studio his work, especially at the Hallé on the Classics for Pleasure label, was distinctly traditional, and included the symphonies of Brahms and Elgar, as well as an electric if occasionally idiosyncratic account of Holst’s The Planets for EMI, which won a gold record.

More eclectically, he made the first commercial recording of Havergal Brian’s music with his disc of Brian’s Symphony No. 10 with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra in 1973.

James Loughran, chairman of the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, was appointed CBE in 2010.

In 1961 he married Nancy Coggon. The marriage was dissolved in 1983 and two years later he married Ludmila Navratil, a violist with the Hallé Orchestra, with whom he retired to the West End of Glasgow, giving up conducting in 2011 after hearing loss. He had two sons from his first marriage, one of whom predeceased him.

James Loughran, born June 30, 1931, died June 19, 2024

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